Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline
Recent discussion, mostly in blogs, regarding the forthcoming Elephant Room conference sponsored by James MacDonald, provides an opportunity to write a few clarifying paragraphs on confessionalism, boundaries, and discipline.
Whatever else The Gospel Coalition has or has not done, it has not prohibited mutual criticism among Council members. We disagree not only on some historic dogmatic matters (e.g., baptism, church governance) but also on an array of pastoral judgments (e.g., multisite churches, approaches to evangelism)---which are of course themselves grounded in our respective understandings of theological issues. On some matters where all Council members are on the same "side" (e.g., complementarianism), we find ourselves in somewhat different places when it comes to implementing our shared theological commitments. At the same time, the richness and detail of our Confessional Statement and our Theological Vision for Ministry demonstrate that we wish to avoid lowest-common-denominator theology. But how do we negotiate the difficult occasions when our foundation documents appear to be skirted, or where boundaries become too porous?
We would like to offer seven reflections on these matters.
(1) From the beginning TGC has distinguished between a boundary-bounded set and a center-bounded set. In the former, you establish boundaries to determine who is "in" and who is "outside" the set---whether the set of true believers, or the set of faithful Presbyterians, or the set of evangelicals, or any other set. For the boundary to have any hope of doing its job, it has to be well defined. If the definitions are sloppy, the boundary keeps getting pushed farther and farther out. For example, suppose we were to say that an evangelical is someone who believes in inerrancy. That may be true, but by itself it is almost useless as a boundary-setting criterion for evangelicalism, since many other people espouse inerrancy who on other criteria are not evangelicals (e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses). Moreover, someone might point to an individual who believes that Jesus died to bear our sin and satisfy the wrath of God, that he rose from the dead, that he is coming at the end of the age to establish resurrection existence in the new heaven and the new earth, that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone, who has personally placed his or her faith in the Lord Jesus, but who holds to a fairly high view of Scripture without subscribing to inerrancy: is that person an evangelical? How much deviation on any point do we allow before we insist the person is not an evangelical? Discussions of this sort lead some writers to declare that there is no widely accepted doctrinal definition of evangelical. The same exercise could be undertaken with definitions of Presbyterian, Baptist, or any number of other flags. Nevertheless in boundary-bounded sets, the attempt is made to provide a boundary that defines who is "in" and who is "out"---and there is usually quite a bit of pressure to keep expanding that boundary, with the result that it easily becomes painfully porous, even meaningless.
Sometimes this way of thinking leads to hopelessly bad questions such as "What is the least I must believe in order to be called an evangelical?"---the answer to which often generates reductionistic approaches to evangelism and horribly emaciated lowest-common-denominator versions of the gospel. Why not rather ask, "How can I give a theologically rich definition of evangelicalism that faithfully reflects the whole counsel of God?" Worse, inside the boundary there is so little agreed tough-minded confessionalism that love for the truth and a deep knowledge of the Bible and historical and systematic theology are rarely encouraged.
By contrast, center-bounded sets don't worry too much about who is "in" and "out" at the periphery. Instead, there is a robust definition at the center. For TGC, the center is defined by our Confessional Statement (CS) and Theological Vision for Ministry (TVM) and sustained by the Council members. There we expect unreserved commitment to these foundation documents. As for others, we often have to explain that people cannot "join" the Coalition. Individuals and churches may choose to identify themselves with us and use the thousands of resources on our site, but Council members do not fall into paroxysms of doubt as to whether or not this individual or that church truly belongs to TGC: we are not a denomination, and we do not have the resources to engage in the kind of vetting at the periphery that a boundary-bounded set demands. At the margins there are many who love part of what we stand for and not other parts. They too are welcome to use our material. At the center, however, we expect robust allegiance.
(2) If someone on our Council espouses something not in line with our CS and TVM, that person is challenged. In other words, at the center there is unqualified accountability. That does not necessarily mean that there are only two options: either we decide that what the person espoused is acceptable, so we defend him, or we decide it is not, so we throw him under the bus. There may be a redemptive option: attempting to enable the brother in question to see the error of his ways and publicly turn from those ways toward greater fidelity. Alternatively, if the brother chooses not to conform unreservedly to the CS and the TVM, we might ask him for his resignation from the Council. If he were to refuse to resign, there is machinery in place to force the issue, all the way to a vote in the Council, which is final. Or again, if the brother accepted correction, but every six months or so drifted into another nasty instance of foot-in-mouth disease, showing a disappointing self-distancing from the CS and the TVM, always reliably unreliable, the Council might well ask him for his resignation.
(3) The kind of allegiance to the gospel and the Scriptures we expect at the center, expressed in our CS and TVM, extends beyond mere personal allegiance. All of us have witnessed politicians who claim they are opposed to abortion, for instance, but who vote the other way because, they say, they do not want to impose their beliefs on others. History is replete with seminary presidents and deans who are personally orthodox but who appoint faculty members who are not. The most recent kerfuffle in TGC was initially precipitated when James MacDonald (as he has acknowledged), though he espoused the doctrine of the Trinity classically understood, gave the impression that other formulations might be acceptable---formulations that sounded a great deal like modalism (Sabellianism). James has turned away from some of what he wrote: a modalist God, he has told some of us repeatedly, cannot save. James was not the first to be challenged on something he said, and will doubtless not be the last. So far as our CS and TVM are concerned, Council members must not be "in process of re-thinking" fundamental matters: for us, they are settled.
(4) Within these bounds, Council members discharge ministries that are highly diverse, with their own networks, specific aims, and relationships with many people outside the Council. Sometimes these relationships make other Council members uncomfortable. A Council member may choose to participate in discussions with an organization known for its laxness in doctrine and practice. He may do so in order to serve as a voice for faithful Christian confessionalism within that organization. Looking at this ministry, other Council members might evaluate things differently and warn the participating Council member that he is merely being used: it would be wiser for to avoid the association. But those are judgment calls. TGC does not normally take any position on whether a Council member's associations are wise or expedient, even though there are not a few Council members who will offer their private judgments out of genuine affection and concern for gospel fidelity and clarity.
(5) One of the things that brought James MacDonald's associations in the Elephant Room into dispute was another factor that cannot be ignored. Many Christian leaders, both within TGC and outside TGC, invite people to their radio broadcasts or podcasts or other forums who are, by their own admission, opposed to the gospel . So a Ravi Zacharias might debate an atheist or an Al Mohler invite a Stanley Fish to an interview. Such sessions are informative, helpful, probing, interesting, and honest. The Christian host makes it clear he is operating out of the framework of unyielding biblical commitments, and then engages those with quite different persuasions. The problem with the Elephant Room was that as initially envisaged it was designed to bring together Christian brothers. To invite someone to such a gathering where that person has not, at the very least, distanced himself from the modalism in which he was reared and which is at odds with Christian convictions in every branch and corner of orthodox Christendom, seemed not only to lack wisdom but to allow tolerance levels to rise to the point where confessionalism is being swamped (see our third point, above). In fact, the design and purposes of the Elephant Room have changed at a rate of speed that eclipsed its mission statement. James has in recent days tried to set the record straight. Many, I suspect, will now wait to see how the hosts of the Elephant Room handle themselves and interact with their guests in the sessions ahead. If they do so with understanding of the truths they discuss, coupled with firmness on the one hand and courtesy on the other, they will go a long way toward stilling doubts. If (God forbid) they were to give the impression that foundational Christian truths do not matter, inevitably serious questions will be raised, and rightly so.
(6) We should offer a brief reflection on confessionalism and conversion. Confessions come in different sizes and degrees of complexity. The longest Christian confession is the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). But no subscriber to the WCF would say that a person must believe everything in the entire document to be saved. More broadly, I suspect that most Christian pastors would concur that that it is possible to be saved without believing in the doctrine of the Trinity: young children, for instance, or fresh adult converts from illiterate and biblically illiterate backgrounds might be hard-pressed to articulate the doctrine accurately. In exactly the same way, a person may truly trust Christ without being able to articulate the doctrine of justification. In neither case, however, does this mean that the doctrine---of the Trinity, of justification---is of no importance. It would certainly be troubling to find a new (ostensible) believer denying either doctrine; equally, it would be troubling to find a putative believer drifting more and more toward unorthodox beliefs, utterly uncorrectable, perhaps reaching the point of becoming a teacher of doctrine that cannot be squared with Scripture.
This can be teased out a little farther. In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, "Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?" In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content. The doctrine of the Trinity helps to establish the oneness of the purposes of God in the mission of the Son, to demonstrate the intra-Trinitarian love of God that bears so much on what the Son achieves in his death and resurrection (see John 17!), that differentiates the roles of the persons of the Godhead in the plan of redemption, and so forth: without the doctrine of the Trinity, the entire schema of the gospel would be transmuted into something unrecognizable. A modalist God, then, cannot save---at least not in any NT understanding of salvation. When we assert that the TGC is passionate about the gospel, we are saying something more than that we are passionate to evangelize (though I hope all of us mean at least that): we are passionate about the gospel as it is presented in Scripture. The gospel is not the little bit of the Bible that tips us into the kingdom so that we can get on with our discipleship and doctrine courses, but the big category, the heart of the Bible's storyline, that joyously announces what God has done through his Son for his own glory and for the good of his blood-bought people, the church of the living God. That is why we worry about questions like this: "What is the least that a person must believe so as to be saved?"---implying, perhaps, that that is the gospel. God help us! That sort of approach will guarantee thin gruel. We should be asking, rather, "How can we preach the whole counsel of God, demonstrating in countless ways the matchless richness of the gospel of God, to the end that men and women might be saved and that all should honor the Son even as the Father?"
We suspect that some of the blog exchanges on this subject have slipped past one another in indignant disarray because one party was calling for gospel cohesion and the other was calling for a charitable answer to the question of who may be saved. The latter question must never be allowed to trim the robust richness of the gospel of God; the former question must not become the necessary and sufficient criterion as to who is saved. And if this reasoning is right, we must train up pastors and evangelists who are not drifting endlessly toward lowest-common-denominator theology, but who love to announce the whole counsel of God.
(7) The blogosphere encourages very rapid responses. Sometimes that enables Christians to address challenges in a timely way. That was one of the things that happened when Rob Bell's book Love Wins was published. But the blogosphere's very speed sometimes encourages polarized or intemperate responses before enough time has elapsed for faithful and mature thought to put things in perspective. We have learned a great deal from the calibrated responses of TGC Council members and others who have contributed to these serious discussions and who have avoided snarky sarcasm, and we are grateful beyond words.